There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine has a special dish delivered to her in the janitor’s closet of a neighboring building because she lives outside the restaurant’s delivery zone. She explains to Jerry that, “It's better than eating it alone in the restaurant, like some loser.”
And Elaine’s not alone—restaurants filled with happy couples, boisterous families, and gregarious groups of friends can be intimidating if you’re flying solo. I used to feel the same way, but after giving it a few tries, I realized that dining by myself could actually help me meet new people. Not to mention be pretty great for impromptu networking!
In fact, I find that when I go to a restaurant alone, I actually socialize with more people than when I go out to dinner with friends, when we just wind up talking to each other. Going out alone, on the other hand, forces me out of my comfort zone and encourages me to talk to the people sitting next to me.
Want to give it a try? Here are a few tips for broadening your social horizons (and your gastronomical ones, too).
1. Sit at the Bar Instead of a Table
Sitting at the bar is a great option for dining alone, even if you’re not drinking. For one thing, if you’re worried about people noticing that you’re alone, it’s harder for people to tell when you’re sitting in a line of other folks. Better yet, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with other people makes it easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. (And, if worse comes to worse, at least you can chat with the bartender.)
2. Put Down the iPhone
While it may be tempting to assuage your initial awkwardness by texting and reading up on the latest news, you’ll be far more likely to engage with those around you if you put down your phone and tune into your surroundings.
The first few times I ventured out alone, I immersed myself in my iPhone. Eventually, I realized that this contributes to a “leave me alone” vibe. Once I decided to start looking up from the phone—and eventually graduated to putting it away altogether—I realized how much fun it could be to just enjoy the restaurant and talk to the people around me.
3. Bring a Book—But Don't Bury Your Nose in It
If you feel the need to have something to do, bringing a book to read is a great option. Not only is it easier to approach someone glancing through a book, it can provides a great conversation starter.
On a recent trip to Montreal, I was feeling shy about going out alone. I sat at the bar and had my French phrasebook out on the bar to read. The book caught the bartender’s eye, and he offered to help me practice my French. A couple of guys sitting nearby got involved in the conversation, too. I started out the evening lonely and timid, but quickly had three new conversation buddies, thanks to my book.
4. Ask Questions
If you're looking at the menu and see an unfamiliar food or cocktail ingredient, you could look it up on your phone—or you could do as I say, put your phone away, and instead ask the person sitting next to you. Yes, it’s old-fashioned—but it’s also much more social. Not to mention, it’s a great ice-breaker.
Don’t have a good question about the menu? Sports can be a good conversation starter since there's often a baseball or football game on the TV behind the bar. Or, if you’re new in town or visiting the city, ask the person sitting next to you about recommendations for places to check out.
5. Offer to Share Food
When I ventured out to the opening night of a new izakaya (the Japanese version of a tapas bar, where small dishes are served for sharing), I was apprehensive about being there by myself. Then, the sociable woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation about what I had ordered and, before you know it, she, her friend, and two other people sitting nearby were all sharing bites of each others’ dumplings and shao bing.
If you’re not at a restaurant designed for sharing—or aren’t comfortable offering up your food to a stranger—there are still plenty of ways you bond over food. I've gotten into conversations that began with the person next to me asking about what I had ordered. I've asked people next to me if they've tried a certain dish and what they thought of it. Once people start talking about food, the conversation usually flows easily.
6. Carry Business Cards
Just like with any networking event, you should always make sure to have business cards on you. When I was chatting with my friends at the Japanese izakaya, the conversation turned to work and I learned that one of my new dining companions was a food blogger. When she found out that I have experience doing web design, she asked for my contact info so she could discuss a website she wanted designed. I scored a potential freelance gig, just by going out to dinner.
Not every encounter is going to lead to a new networking connection or friend—but it’s always good to be prepared. You never know who you’ll meet.
Next time you find yourself craving culinary or social variety, head down to a new restaurant, grab a seat at the bar, and strike up a conversation with the person next to you. The person who you’re chatting with about chorizo one night may just turn out to be a future colleague, boss, business partner, friend, or romantic partner.